Giuseppe Di Scipio. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Editor: Fedwa Malti-Douglas, volume 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.
Cupid, the Roman god of love (Amor), was said to be the child of Venus (Aphrodite) and Mars, but his paternity also was attributed to Jupiter, Mercury, and Vulcan. He usually was represented as a winged, dart-bearing chubby naked infant and frequently was represented in Renaissance art as a little angel (putto). From the name Cupid came the Latin words cupere (to desire) and cupido (lust, greedy desire), along with English words such as cupidity (excessive desire for wealth, avarice) and concupiscence (lust).
Cupid was the Latin name for the Greek Eros, who, according to another tradition, was born from Chaos and the Dark Night or the Luminous Day. From Eros came the terms erotic, eroticism (lustful desire), and erotica (non-scientific literature and art dealing with sex). Whereas Eros personifies lust, his brother Anteros is the god of unrequited love and the love between men and young men. All these forms express physical love or earthly desires and attachments, whereas altruistic Christian love is referred to as agape and tender love or tendency toward loving is called philia (De Rougemont 1983). Eros has been a major force in psychoanalysis, for example, in the work of Freud and in Jung’s archetypes.
Eros in Greek and Roman Literature
Plato, who in the Symposium discussed the many meanings of love, affirmed that Love, a mighty god, is the oldest of the gods because he has no parents. Plato thus quotes Hesiod’s Theogony: “First Chaos came and the broad bosomed Earth,/The everlasting seat of all that is,/And Love.” Plato also quotes Parmenides, who says that Generation: “First in the train of gods, fashioned Love” (Plato, Symposium 1996, pp. 19-20). Thus Plato acknowledges Eros not only as a procreative force but also as a psychological one (Grant 1995).
The Latin poet Ovid (43-17 BCE), who was best known for Metamorphoses, The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria), and the Remedia amoris (The Cures of Love), was a major contributor to the propagation of the myth of Cupid and erotic love and the personification of Cupid (Grant 1995). In the first few verses of the Art of Love (1993) Ovid states that Venus appointed him as a guide to “tender love” and describes Cupid as “a boy, tender his age and easily controlled … born of a goddess” (Ovid 1993, Book I, part 1, p. 13). In Book II Love is characterized as “fickle and he has two wings” (Ovid 1993, p. 67). Ovid wrote Elegy IX upon the death of the Latin poet Tibullus (c. 54-19 BCE), whose first muse was Delia, saying: “See how Venus’ son goes with his quiver reversed, with broken bow” (Ovid 1993, p. 84). The Latin poet Catullus (c. 84-54 BCE) mentions the figure of Cupid in his love lyrics, labeling him “Holy,” a “divine boy, who minglest joys of men with cares” (Cornish 1995, p.105). The powerful effect of love is shown in Virgil’s Aeneid as Dido is wounded by Cupid and falls desperately in love with Aeneas, the son of Venus (Mandelbaum 1971). Virgil also speaks of Cupid in the Eclogues.
Eros in Apuleius
The power of Cupid appears frequently in the Latin tradition and in poets such as Lucretius, Propertius, and Horace, but it was Apuleius who had the greatest impact on the popularity of the myth of Cupid and Psyche in the Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses (1962). Apuleius, who was born in Algeria in the mid-120s CE, describes Cupid as a young man, no longer a child, unseen by humans and reputed to be a monster to whom Psyche is given up in sacrifice. Psyche has to endure long and harsh travails and the opposition of Venus to regain her lost love and find happiness; their offspring is Pleasure.
Allegorically, this is the story of the soul (psyche in Greek), which must endure enormous difficulties before finding love. The allegory is derived from Plato’s conception of love in the Symposium. The tale of Cupid and Psyche is placed in the middle of the novel by Apuleius, and it represents the mythical transformation through trials and redemption of Lucius, the protagonist.
Apuleius was indebted to Plato; he translated Plato’s Phaedo and wrote at least five philosophical treatises, one of them titled De Platone et eius dogmate [Of Plato and his dogma]. In discussing the nature of humans and of love, Plato evoked the myth of Zeus, who, because of the rebellion of humans who were created as round creatures with two faces on a single neck, four legs, and four arms, split them into two. As a result humans have the constant desire to reach perfection by being reunited with the other half: “Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for the other half” (Plato 1996, pp. 32-33). Love is therefore people’s benefactor because he pushes them toward their original nature, toward happiness. The Golden Ass thus was not written solely for entertainment but is an allegory of the human condition of Eros, who wounds people by means of the arrows of love and passion, and Psyche (the soul) attempting to contend with their difficulties (Grant 1995).
Eros in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance
Plotinus (c. 205-269 CE) and the Neoplatonists stressed the allegorical notion of the soul’s search for love and deeply influenced the Latin Middle Ages, humanism, and the Renaissance. This allegorical perspective was maintained by the earliest commentators and translators, from Fulgentius, to Boccaccio, to Beroaldus and W. Adlington (who translated Apuleius into English in 1566), and is still influential. From the tale of Cupid and Psyche derived a number of fairy tale versions of Beauty and the Beast. Marie Catherine D’Alunoy (c.1650-1705) wrote The Green Serpent, which became the basis for subsequent versions of Beauty and the Beast. According to Stith Thomson (1977), there are sixty-one Italian oral variants of this type, along with one in Missouri and one in Jamaica. There are three versions of the tale in Basile’s Pentameron. Sir James Frazier (1854-1941) in Psyche’s Task (1910) reinforced the importance of this myth in primitive psychology, and the tale later became significant in artistic creativity in all genres, such as Jean Cocteau’s (1889-1963) cinematic rendition.
The presence and myth of Cupid in poetry is a well-established tradition in the Middle Ages and especially in the Renaissance. Both Alain de Lille (1128?-1203) in Liber de Planctu Naturae and Bernard Silvestris (c. 1150) in De Universitate Mundi saw Eros as a mystery of procreation and a cosmological force. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1091-1153) spiritualized sensuous love in his allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, which influenced Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Mathilde of Magdeburg (c. 1207-1294), and other female mystics.
Medieval vernacular poets such as the troubadours, the Minnesingers with their Frau Minne, the authors of the Roman de la Rose (1250-1305) Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung, the writers of medieval romances, and the various authors of the love story of Tristan and Iseult all reinforced the power of love and the cult of courtly love. The Italian stilnovistic poets (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), such as Guinizelli, Cavalcanti, Cino da Pistoia, and Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), transformed woman and love into a noble and spiritual symbol without ignoring its physical traits. Those poets empowered the image of love—as a woman or the loved one—in form, content, and style and influenced generations of poets in the Western world, whether Cupid was seen as human or divine.
The Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) in Canzoniere blames Cupid’s arrows for making him prey to love and laments the illusory nature of his earthly love for Laura; he celebrates the trionfo dell’Amore [the triumph of love] in his Trionfi. Troilus is stricken with Cupid’s arrow in Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1340-1400) Troilus and Cressida. Cupid-Love is the subject of John Gower in Confessio amantis (c. 1390) and a subject of interest for Christine de Pizan (1364-1431), John Lydgate (1370-1449), Clement Marot (1494-1556), and many other writers. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) made many references to love in his sonnets and plays, including The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Comedy of Errors, and Love’s Labour Lost. John Milton (1608-1674) wrote in Comus of “Celestial Cupid” and his dear Psyche. Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) wrote the fable “Love and Folly.” William Blake (1757-1827) wrote a poem titled “Why Was Cupid a Boy” and illustrated Vala with a crouching Cupid.
Later Representations of Eros
Lyric poets and writers from ancient times to the present have dealt with Cupid, from the German and other European romantics to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Edgar Allan Poe in Annabel Lee, Antonio Machado, Pablo Neruda, Cesare Pavese, and James Joyce. Often Cupid leads to desperation, self-destruction, and suicide. “Love, as always I want to cover you with flowers and insults,” wrote Vincenzo Cardarelli. Gerard Manley Hopkins said, “Eros is a little more than a winged Masher, but Psyche is a success, a sweet little ‘body,’ rather than a ‘soul.'” Later poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, and Muriel Rukeyser placed a greater emphasis on the image of changing woman and love.
Eros/Cupid in Art
In art Eros commonly is portrayed as a mischievous child-god unconcerned with the effects his darts have on his targets. One of the oldest representations of Eros as a winged figure is on a bronze lamina from the seventh century BCE that was found near Siena, Italy. In the Acropolis in Athens there are ceramic fragments from the sixth century BCE that represent the winged god together with Aphrodite, Imenus, and Photos. The figure of Eros appears on sixth-century vases crafted by Midias. In the fourth century the god is depicted with bow and arrows on reliefs, mirrors, and incisions. Praxiteles and Lysippus represented Eros in statuettes. There are representations of Eros in Etruscan art
In Roman art Cupid becomes more human and sensuous (de Caro 1996, p. 327). Mural representations of amorini (infant Cupids) from Stabia and Pompeii indicate that those statuettes were sold to the public. In Pompeii there is an Eros Being Punished and an Eros on a Crab. Pompeii has many amatory inscriptions as well as representations of the trio Venus, Cupid, and Hermaphrodite. In art Cupid often is represented without wings, especially when he is embracing Psyche. There are also representations of Eros and the bee derived from the idyll once attributed to the Greek poet Theocritus (c. 270 BCE).
The representation of Love (Cupid) in the arts remained powerful and multifaceted over the centuries. Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera (1482-1483) shows the transformation of Zephyrus’s arrows and winds of passion into spiritual love. Michelangelo (1475-1564) sculptured a sleeping Cupid. Correggio’s The Education of Cupid (c. 1525) features a winged Cupid being tutored by Venus. Caravaggio presented the image of an unremarkable chubby Sleeping Cupid (1608-1609) but also the symbolically rich Cupid as Victorious Love (1602-1603), in which Cupid seems to conquer earthly passions signified by musical instruments. That theme may be derived from a verse in Virgil’s Bucolics stating that love conquers all.
Other interesting representations of love as earthly passion appear in Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time and Sebastiano Ricci’s The Punishment of Cupid (1706-1707). Bartolommeo Manfredi’s The Chastisement of Love (1605-1610) shows a blindfolded Cupid as a symbol of passionate love being punished by Mars for making him fall in love with Venus. The eighteenth-century Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) produced many sculptural renditions of Cupid and Psyche and interprets their story in Eros and Psyche as that of the soul enduring suffering before reaching love.
The story of Cupid and Psyche has caught the imagination of artists throughout the centuries, including Titian (1488-1576), Francesco Albani (1578-1660), Francis Wheatley, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665), Diego Velasquez (1599-1660), Francois Boucher (1703-1770), Bertel Thorwaldsen (1770-1849), Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), Jean Louis David (1748-1825), Jean Leon Gerome (1824-1904), William Bouguerau (1825-1905), Edward Burne Jones (1833-1898), Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Dante Gabriele Rossetti (1828-1882), Guillaume Segnac (1870-1924), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), John William Watrehouse (1849-1917), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), Paul Klee (1879-1940), and Salvador Dali (1904-1989).